Monday, May 29, 2017

Black Book (2006)

Looking at Paul Verhoeven’s filmograpgy, its easy to separate his early Dutch period from his Hollywood era films, yet at the same time that would be doing his entire body of work a disservice. Granted it would probably seem odd to compare a film like Katie Tippel (1975) to RoboCop (1987), but the fact remains that an inspection of all of Verhoeven’s films reveals many reoccurring obsessions that bear the mark of a true auteur. For example, Verhoeven’s science fiction efforts feature strong anti-authoritarian attitudes as well as social satire, therefore it makes complete sense that the same director responsible for films like RoboCop and Starship Troopers (1997) would also be behind an over the top satire like Showgirls (1995). Despite the fact that clueless critics have labeled Verhoeven as a misogynist, strong willed female characters have been another constant in his work going all the way back to his debut feature Business is Business (1971) and would feature prominently in Katie Tippel, Basic Instinct (1992) and Showgirls. After making six films in Hollywood, Verhoeven began to feel, in his own words, “depressed with himself” following Hollow Man (2000). Seeking artistic inspiration, Verhoeven returned to Holland and relocated his muse in a big way with Black Book, a staggeringly brilliant WWII thriller that saw Verhoeven continue to expand upon his favorite motifs while still remaining fresh, resulting in one of his greatest films.

During the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), a Jewish woman in hiding is forced to flee after the home where she had been hiding is destroyed and her attempt to flee to liberated territory is ambushed by the Nazi’s. With no other option, Rachel joins the underground resistance. Given the alias Ellis de Vries, Rachel is tasked with bugging the Gestapo headquarters as well as seducing Captain Ludwig Müntze, the head of the Gestapo. Corruption amongst the Nazi’s is soon uncovered, however some miscommunication via wiretap has Rachel’s fellow resistance fighters mistake her for a traitor the same time her cover is blown by the Nazi’s. Complicating matters further, Rachel has fallen in love with Müntze for real and both find themselves with enemies from both sides.

“Gripping” is one choice adjective that tends to get plastered on the posters of many a thriller and Black Book (Zwartboek) is certainly a film that epitomizes the term. So much so that any film described as such had better be at least half as good as Black Book, an unrelenting and provocative film wrought with so much intrigue and suspense that its 2 hour and 26 minute running time flies by like nothing. Given the amount of tension and drama Verhoeven conjures up throughout the course of the film, Black Book is definitely  worthy of comparisons to some of Hitchcock’s wartime thrillers, with the twists and shifting allegiances happening right up until the films final half hour. The execution of course, is pure Verhoeven. Much like Flesh + Blood (1985), Verhoeven’s brutal medieval epic, nothing in Black Book is black and white. This is a film defined by its shades of gray, with there being no distinction between right and wrong, good or bad. This is applicable to both the Nazi’s and the resistance fighters which Verhoeven brilliantly uses to toy with the audiences sympathies. The film is also brazenly transgressive by having a Jewish woman fall in love with an SS officer, the development of their relationship making the film all the more captivating. The film is carried by the astonishing performance by Carice van Houten who, following a long line of Verhoeven female leads, is composed of cunning wit and fierce sexuality and determined to use both to her advantage.

At the time of its production, Black Book was the most expensive Dutch film ever made, a feat which Verhoeven knows something about having set the same record first with Katie Tippel and again with its follow up, Verhoeven’s first WWII themed film Solider of Orange (1977). The film would also go on to be one of the most commercially successful Dutch films, breaking box office records and in 2008 it was voted the greatest Dutch film of all time by the public, seven years after Verhoeven’s Turkish Delight (1973) was awarded that title at the 1999 Netherlands Film Festival. What’s also interesting about the film is that Verhoeven and screenwriter Gerard Soeteman, who also collaborated with Verhoeven on Turkish Delight and Solider of Orange, had been working on the script for at least 15 years before the film was green lit. Even more interesting was that the main character was originally male. Its a rare occurrence when so much praise is heaped upon a film that actually deserves it but Black Book is one such film. The response to the film is a testament to not only the Dutch public's good taste in film but also to the type of filmmaker Verhoeven is, going “back to his roots” so to speak, looking to be re-invigorated. It worked, as Black Book is a incredible film that easily stands alongside Verhoeven's earlier Dutch masterpieces.

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